MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, by Steve Knopper****

MJthegeniusofmichaeljacksonJackson was a musical prodigy whose talent was almost limitless. His brilliant career was derailed by scandal, and his final 50 city tour was aborted by his death the night before it was to commence. Knopper does the best job of objectively recounting Jackson’s life and death that I have seen so far. His portrait is intimate without being prurient. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Jackson was born in the 1950’s, a time when the race barrier kept Black performers from being seen by a general audience, with only the rarest exceptions. Black folks could play music for Black folks, and nobody else. The family was terribly poor, with eight or nine people crowded into a house better suited to three or four. They lived in Gary, a steel town in which Black poverty was more the rule than the exception. His father was a struggling musician until it became obvious that his sons had inherited his talent plus some. By the time Michael was five years old, he was the charismatic center of the Jackson Five, who soon were contracted to Motown, the center of African-American music in the USA.

Knopper explains how the family’s progression from a Motown act, where they were not allowed to actually play their own instruments on stage and could not use music they wrote themselves; to an independent family act, apart from one son who chose to remain with Motown; to the final day when Michael got himself an agent and a lawyer and set out on his own, divorcing his family so that he could have full control over a solo act. Until he was independent, iconic creations such as Thriller and Smooth Criminal would most likely never have been launched. And he recounts the family drama that ensued, with bodyguards pulling guns to discourage Michael’s angry brothers when they tried to force their way past the gates of his estate, shouting that he owed them money.

As a fan of excellent music and performance, I was sucked into the maelstrom produced by the press both during his life and afterward. It’s embarrassing to admit how completely I was played. For years I would not permit Jackson’s music to be played in my home because I thought he was a sick creep who used his fame to gain private, inappropriate contact with smooth-faced young boys. Somehow it escaped me that he had never been proved guilty in a court of law; on the one hand, it made sense to pay one family off in order to take the heat off his career, and Knopper documents the advice experienced, famous musicians gave Jackson to do whatever he had to do to shut that shit down so he could go back to focusing on music. But the press was merciless, and the payoff, which came too late to do damage control effectively, was portrayed as a tacit admission of guilt. And I bought it.

A few months after Jackson’s death, I was in a hotel room on vacation with my family, and my youngest son, who is Black, turned on the television, and there was the second round that Knopper documents, the round of memorial tributes that brought a lump to one’s throat as we saw Jackson’s miraculous career unspooled. He pioneered music videos in so many ways I had failed to appreciate, and he employed so many Black musicians that might never have had a steady job, while at the same time reaching out to Caucasian performers as well, creating a bridge between Black music and Caucasian sounds, transitioning from disco-like R and B to the “King of Pop”. I was horrified at the way I had misjudged him.

About a year ago, I read Michael Jackson’s memoir, Moonwalk, and while I took parts of it with a grain of salt, I also came to believe that the guy just didn’t know what was socially appropriate at times because he had never had a normal childhood. I was sold. Poor Michael.

Knopper has a more realistic take on all this. He certainly should; he used over 450 sources, and he wasn’t anybody’s mouthpiece. And so the truth turns out to be more complicated.

What left me somewhat stunned, in the end, was not the sex scandal, and it wasn’t the postmortem resurrection of Jackson as some sort of musical saint. Instead, I was absolutely floored at the number of people that worked for the guy, some of them for a lot of years, who he left without paychecks for weeks, then months on end. Jackson had a tremendous load of debt, was on the verge of bankruptcy and was saved only by his investment in song publishing, a piece of advice given him by friend Paul McCartney that he had followed through on. Yet he continued to buy one extreme luxury estate after another, holding residences he would likely never use again, shopping extravagantly (the example of taking a new friend shopping and telling him to do it “like this”, as he swept entire shelves of merchandise into his cart, astounded me) while leaving his employees, regular working folk with bills to pay for the most part, with no paychecks. There was money for shopping, but not for them, and some of them took him to court for it. It made me a bit sick. This man knew what it was like to be poor, and he knew what hunger was like, but as long as he didn’t have to see the people that he had betrayed, he could continue to play out the Peter Pan thread, irresponsibly trashing the lives of those he had told they could count on him, then leaving them with empty wallets and eviction notices.

Maybe you think I have over-shared. I have news; this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you have followed this review all the way to its conclusion, you will like this book. It is available for purchase October 20.

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